Whose life is it anyway?On 1 Jul 2001 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Applying an effective work-life balance policy that meets the needs of theorganisation and the individual is a difficult juggling act for the HRpractitioner. Sara Bean talks to Liz Rayner, HR director of Shell Gas andpower, about the practicalities of implementing flexible working policies in afast moving businessThe challenge of achieving a happy balance between home and work has alwaysbeen the same. It’s about being able to enjoy your work, your family life and yourleisure time in equal measure. However, in recent months the phrase “work-life balance” hasbecome common currency and has even moved to the top of the political agenda.The Government’s green paper, Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice, hasgenerated much debate about the feasibility or otherwise of allowing newparents the statutory right to return to work part-time, while directives likethe Working Time Regulations contain a number of provisions dealing with thelength of the working day. So whose job is it to decide how an individual balances their work-lifecommitments? Is it the responsibility of the employer, the employee or thelegislature? And does flexible working benefit an employee to the detriment oftheir organisation? Shell companies in the UK, which has been operating a range of work-lifebalance policies for many years, illustrates how flexible work policies canbring major advantages to both an organisation and its employees. The Shell experience Shell in the UK comprises some 9,000 employees, many of which work in globalareas. The company offers a range of flexible working initiatives, includingpart-time working, working from home, job sharing, career breaks and maternityand paternity leave. But the challenges of increased competition, globalisation, new technologyand the demands of attracting and retaining high calibre employees means thatthe company is constantly reviewing the way in which its employees work. Liz Rayner, HR director of Shell Gas and Power is a passionate advocate offlexible working, which, she argues, is an important way to get the best out ofpeople. “Work-life balance is often said to be a the moral responsibilityof employers, but it is also in the company’s best interests. And support fromthe top is one of the most important elements.” She explains the reason why achieving an effective work-life balancestrategy is so important to the company. Shell needs to attract, retain andmotivate the highest quality of staff, to support the challenges of: – increased customer demand – global competition – and a workforce with higher expectations. Teleworking and virtual teams Customers are increasingly demanding of the services they receive, so withinthe retail and consumer side of Shell, where staff need to get closer to thecustomer base, there are many more people working from home instead of cominginto the office. Says Rayner, “That required quite a lot of thinking about. We had togive people guidelines about how to keep in touch. How do you set targets andessentials like what do you give them to work from home? What do you pay for inthe home? Are they insured? You have to think about the practicaladministrative issues and soft issues like how can they still feel‘loved’?” And because, in order to compete on the global stage, the company has got aninternational agenda, employees are grouped into “virtual teams”,within a European, rather than country by country basis. This means, explains Rayner, “You could be sitting in the UK and your bossmay be based in Germany. What we’re saying is that we’re not London-centric anymore, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t work from the country that you’rebased in, which is far less upheaval for your family.” IT solutions The widespread use of the Internet and e-mail has brought with it theadvantages of speed, immediacy and constant access. Unfortunately this alsomeans that it tends to impinge upon people’s home lives. Last year Shell conducted a global survey of its employees. In answer to thequestion, “I have difficulty managing my work and my life”, 59 percent said that was the case. When the survey was discussed at the Shell global leadership meeting, itemerged that, particularly among senior managers, one of the biggest headacheswas the amount of e-mails they received, especially at the weekend. Says Rayner, “We found out that e-mail can be a real pain. Talkingabout that we realised that you don’t have to send an e-mail when you writeone. No e-mails at the weekend is a great step in the right direction becausewhat it does is show that people at the top take the issue seriously.” The company also realised that for people working within a global basedbusiness, especially those based at home, an IT help desk which is onlyavailable from nine until five could become more of a source of stress thansupport. As a result, the company has set up a global-based help desk servicecalled “Follow the sun”. With locations spanning Malaysia in the eastto the USA in the west, the service means that IT help can be accessed by staffworking at home, in the office or when travelling on business, via one number,24-hours a day. Employee expectations Shell already has a range of flexible working policies, (see box) but agreesRayner, people still want solutions to their particular problems. She arguesthat the ideal solution to an employee’s request for flexible working hours isto come up with an individual solution that meets everyone’s needs. “Individuals decide what they want, but of course there is a businessneed as well. It’s about matching those two. Sometimes an individual may say‘it’s all the businesses fault, they ought to change things for me’. But youhave to take ownership yourself too.” She explains that Shell doesn’t push flexible working as a policy but leavesit to the individual and the line manager to discuss. If they come to the HRdepartment with their query, they will receive help and support in achieving amutually satisfying decision. “It’s important that they both take ownership of it. They must discusswhat does this mean for the other people in the team? How can we manage it? Andperhaps they will need to talk to them about it as well.” Whose job is it anyway? So is it the job of the legislature to determine the way in which employershandle work-life balance issues? Rayner has her doubts. She argues that Shellhas always been ahead of the law anyway, offering generous maternity benefitsand career breaks long before they were legally required. The practicalities of ensuring that an international company adheres to UKlaw are also a major issue. Because Shell is organised across European lines,only some of its people are employed in the UK, so legislation in the UK maynot have much relevance for a line manager who runs their department acrossfifteen countries. Says Rayner, “The most important thing is the environment in which thecompany works, the relationship between employers and managers. And if that’swhat works and if you treat people with respect, the last thing you want tocome back to is the law.” Business benefits of work-life policiesBusiness benefits of work-lifebalance policies:– helps to retain skilled and trained employees– matches the requirements of the business with the needs ofthe employee– helps employees to balance their job and other interests– increases skills, ideas and experiences through job-sharing– brings flexibility to help manage peaks or troughs in workload– complements Shell’s other equal opportunities policies andpractices.Case study – career breakKate Cowie, head of personnel andadministration, Gas supply group, has been working for Shell in the UK since1987, during which she has taken a career break of three and a half years. After her first child was born, Kate was able to take time outof the workplace with the commitment by Shell that it would try to place herback into a job when she was ready to return. She was asked to work one montheach year to “keep in touch”. The first period was in Dansk Shell inCopenhagen, with the second in Aberdeen in the Brent Field Unit. She recently transferred (along with her husband, also a Shellemployee) to Australia with Shell. She said, “I was offered a six weekperiod of unpaid leave to settle the children and find a new nanny. Now I amplanning to reduce my contractual hours, and work from home if necessary, so Ican spend more time with the boys. It is hard work but, thanks to the company’sapproach and recognition that we have commitments outside work, we believe wehave been able to combine successfully our careers with being parents.”Shell work-life balance initiativesMember of the Employers for work-lifebalance alliance.Career breaksThis is intended to allow an employee to maintain contact withShell while they take extended leave to bring up a family. A career break:– lasts up to two years, with a maximum of five years overthree career breaks– requires that each application for a career break isconsidered on an individual basis– requires the applicant to commit to four weeks work/trainingper year – is treated as unpaid leave so the applicant is still a Shellemployee during their absence– ensures the employee is kept in contact with the company viatheir line manager.Parental leave policyShell operates a variety of parental leave policies, whichinclude:– six months paid maternity leave after two years continuousservice by 11th week before baby is born– paternity leave of five days paid leave– on-site nursery at Aberdeen site– a childcare adviser – adoption leave according to individual circumstances.Flexible working Approval for flexible working arrangements is at the discretionof line manager and is dependent on the needs of the business being met. Thethree main types:– part-time working to suit individual and needs of the business– job sharing by agreement between individuals and linemanagement– working from home, with all, or some of, the working hoursbased at home rather than the work location. Can be arranged on regular or adhoc basis. Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos.